The Associated Press deserves a Pulitzer Prize for its "Impact Series" on the Drug War.
Back in May, AP dropped a bombshell on America's longest war and the headline said it all: "The US Drug War has Met None of its Goals." The extensive piece reviewed the last 40 years, starting with President Nixon's official launch of the War on Drugs all the way to President Obama's annual strategy released this year. The piece packed a punch from the start: "After 40 years, the United States' War on Drugs has cost $1 trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence more brutal and widespread."
Today the AP Impact Series again broke ground with its piece, "Cartel Arrests Did Not Curb Drug Trade." The bottom line is that despite all of the DEA and Justice Department press conferences, photo-ops of people in handcuffs, and tons of drugs seized, the cartels are stronger than ever.
The piece starts by reminding us of Attorney General Holder's first press conference in 2009 when he announced the largest-ever federal crackdown on Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, in which 761 people were arrested and 23 tons of drugs were seized. Standing by him was acting DEA Chief Michele Leonhart who said, "Today we have dealt the Sinaloa drug cartel a crushing blow."
Instead of just reporting the story and waiting for the next press conference announcing "major blows" to cartels, the AP actually figured out and documented how "crushing" this crackdown really was to the cartel.
The AP tracked almost 200 of the people arrested, analyzed thousands of pages of court records, and interviewed dozens of prisoners, law enforcement agents and criminal law experts. Among the findings:
- Federal agents have not nabbed top cartel bosses. None of the bosses who control their syndicates have ever been arrested in the U.S.
- Many of the people they do arrest are not even middle management. They are low-level American street dealers and "mules" who help smuggle the drugs. Such workers are easily replaced with only a minor inconvenience to the organization.
- A third of those arrested are already out on the streets. Jurors acquitted them, or prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to hold them. Others jumped bail or went undercover for the DEA.
The AP points out that their story confirms what critics of drug war have said for years: The government is quick to boast about large arrests and seizures, but its efforts result in little, if any, slowdown in the drug trade.
And not only has it failed to interrupt the drug trade -- it has made it much more violent. While Mexico's and the United States' "surge" in fighting the cartels over the last four years has not impacted drug availability or slowed down the trade, it has led to close to 30,000 prohibition related deaths in Mexico. It's not the marijuana or coca plants themselves or the use of these drugs that causes this bloodbath. The brutality is a byproduct of drug prohibition, which makes drugs as valuable as gold and creates a profit motive that people are willing to kill for.
The U.S. has given Mexico $1.3 billion in aid to buy guns and tanks. What Mexico really needs doesn't cost a penny. It needs the U.S. to open up a true debate about the causes and solutions to the violence in Mexico.
It is time for an exit strategy from this failed War on Drugs. And it's up to us -- as people who care about science, compassion, health, and human rights -- to make sure that the time comes as soon as possible.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)